It seems that Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama made a mainstream political no-no: unconditional dialogue with "rogue states" is forbidden. In Miami, this is a position that many are familiar with: the "hard-line" position towards the Cuban government.
So this is what happened on Monday's debate:
Question: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.
In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
Obama: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous.
Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.
They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
The following day, Hillary Clinton, the other leading Presidential candidate, was quoted describing Obama's comments as "irresponsible and frankly naive." At the debate, Clinton had a chance to respond to the same question, and so did candidate John Edwards. Both gave very similar responses: they support diplomacy, but cautiously ("to test the waters") in order to avoid negotiations "to be used for propaganda purposes" by our enemies. These comments by Clinton and Edwards are very revealing.
The response by Sen. Barack Obama was very brave, especially since the question clearly mentioned dialogue without preconditions. I hope he doesn't change his position, despite the future backlash from opponents. Obama's response showed that he understands well the psychology involved with current US hesitations for diplomatic resolutions, and the obvious drawbacks. On the other hand, the response by Clinton and Edwards revealed their apparent hesitations concerning what may be "the highest tasks of diplomacy" and the grim prospects for such a flawed position. The case of damaged US/Cuba relations have been partly the result of such indecisive politics.
Three writers from The Nation magazine made excellent points about Obama's comments: David Corn writes that Obama's comments will definitely come back to haunt him if he gets the Democratic Presidential nomination, and that his response lacked the "sophistication" of Clinton and Edwards, both of whom are more experienced in the "nuances, language, and minefields of foreign policy."
Ari Berman responds to Corn saying that despite the political experience of Clinton and Edwards, they both nevertheless "came down on the wrong side of the biggest foreign policy question of their generation" by initially supporting the Iraq War. Berman reminds us that "[e]xperience matters. But good judgement matters more."
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, adds her thoughts on how the Clinton and Edwards position is really no different than former President Bill Clinton's foreign policy and asks: "[W]hat did the [Bill] Clinton approach actually accomplish?" For instance, "[t]he respective regimes of Castro in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela have only grown stronger, and more influential in Latin America." Vanden Heuvel believes that "Obama was signaling that the United States has the confidence in its values to meet with anyone. But he also signaled a certain humility" to engage with those deemed as "rogue states."
In my opinion, Barack Obama has certainly shown an important psychological value in addressing world conflicts, especially if he becomes President of the world's only Superpower: humility. It is an important value (even if not personally authentic) in the face of our neighboring countries whom deserve no more respect or any less from what we desire ourselves from them. It becomes an essential ingredient to addressing the most pressing issues that we may face in the future. Especially in the case of one of our closest neighbors, Cuba.
But, humility is also a value that has been ignored by US foreign policy for many years, with many negative consequences.